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When you have come up with a radically new idea for a car, you need to take a radically new approach to introduce it to consumers. The Elio—a three-wheeled, two-person, electric vehicle slated to start production in 2017—is like nothing car consumers have ever seen before. It embraces an unconventional image, such that its eponymous founder acknowledges, “We’re a little lighthearted. We’re not stodgy old Detroit. Not that there’s something wrong with that….”lo-res_bld118750-s

Noting this combination of factors, namely, a radically innovative new product that it needed to introduce to potential buyers, a quirky image, and a further need to separate itself from traditional car manufacturers, Elio decided to adopt a highly distinctive marketing strategy too. It partnered with The Onion, the satirical fake news organization known best for its silly headlines and topical political spoofs. The Onion’s advertising arm, Onion Labs, got its start in 2012 and has helped several brands develop edgy and undeniably funny spots.

For Elio, the advertising group wanted to leverage the absurdity of current events, one of the key strengths of The Onion’s approach to the news. Political events, and especially the contentious U.S. presidential election, suggested an irresistible option: Two potential drivers, one in a red shirt and the other in blue, would argue over who got to drive an Elio model, all the while making comments that mocked and teased political partisans on both sides.

The primary goal of the campaign was to get people to laugh and attend to the brand and its products. Although the company accepts preorders, it was not ready to start shipping out vehicles to buyers, so it did not need a call to action that would prompt immediate purchases. But it does need people to understand what an Elio is, or at the very least, recognize the brand name as something fun and different.

The ultimate advertisement emerged from a back-and-forth process between Elio and The Onion. As the publication itself admits, The Onion always tries to push the envelope further, and Elio worried that some of the most radical ideas could offend some viewers. But The Onion also promises that it knows its readers and the sorts of content that they expect. A straightforward ad on The Onion site is unlikely to resonate with any of the visitors who have come there to get their daily dose of satire.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What types of consumers is Elio seeking to reach by advertising through The Onion?
  2. What type of branding strategy is Elio adopting?

Source: Zach Schonbrun, “Trying to Disrupt the Auto Industry with The Onion’s Help,” The New York Times, October 9, 2016